From the opening page of Glenn Loury’s dark and dazzling memoir, readers will know they’re in for a ride. Loury admits as much, issuing a Borgesian provocation in his first line: “We’re playing a game, you and I, reader and author…. Your role in the game is to search me out. Not the narrative-construct me, the real me. My role in the game is to get you to call off the search.”

Before a migraine can set in, we’re off. By the halfway mark of chapter 1, we have met a half-dozen vivid, quickly drawn characters, peopling the not-yet-desperate South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and early ’60s—a seemingly idyllic setting for bike riding and summer loafing and boyish pranks. Much of it is overseen by the author’s formidable great-aunt Eloise, whose standing in the community is certified by her leadership of the local Baptist church’s Social, Religious, and Literary Guild. She and her husband, Moonie, the local barber, take young Glenn into her elegant home on South Michigan Avenue to raise, along with his sister and an assortment of cousins.

Already we’ve glimpsed Glenn’s distant parents, divorced for reasons the boy can only guess at: his father upright and stern and full of rectitude, his mother perfumed and musical and full of fun. We’ve met a handful of charming and colorful uncles and aunts, related by blood or marriage or just reputation. We’ve met his best friend, Woody, his skin so fair that his family could pass for white—indeed, they had moved into the neighborhood years before when it was hospitable only for whites. Now that the whites have fled to the suburbs, Woody’s family has decided to stay behind and embrace their racial identity, because “we just wouldn’t run from our own kind.” The trouble Woody and Glenn get up to is as innocent as St. Augustine and the pear tree: They jump a neighbor’s fence and denude his apple tree of apples. They steal more fruit than they could ever need or want—“the perfect crime”—though the author can still conjure, with sybaritic gusto, the sensation of biting into one of the stolen fruits on Eloise’s porch.

Yet even as he’s constructing his recollected idyll with one hand, Loury is peeling it away with the other, to reveal a less savory reality beneath. This is a writerly ploy as American as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Uncle Moonie uses the back room of his barbershop to sell dope. Another uncle, as Glenn discovers on reliable authority, has slept with every member of the board of Aunt Eloise’s church guild. Still another has fathered 22 children with four mothers. Yet another—a lawyer, the pride of the family—is soon swamped by booze and drugs and later disbarred. It’s the promiscuity of Glenn’s beautiful mother that has broken up his parents’ marriage; his sister, he learns, is his half-sister, the child of a long-gone lover. And so on.

So this is what Late Admissions brings us: a new Borges layering a Sherwood Anderson tale by way of Ralph Ellison with allusions to Proust and Augustine. And we’re only on page 16.

Late Admissions is a book of staggering ambition.

But then, Glenn Loury has always been ambitious. For readers of Commentary—for anyone who has had an ear half-cocked to the public debates about race, economics, demographics, and sectarian politics over the past 40 years—his career needs only the briefest introduction. His native analytic powers, bolstered by an uncanny facility with numbers, allowed him to emerge from the South Side through Northwestern University to become, in 1982 at age 33, a tenured professor of economics at Harvard, the first African American to do so. It was the dawn of High Reaganism, and Loury became famous-for-academia for his social and political views, which might best be described with the outdated term “Reaganite.” He became a friend to, a protégé of, a mentor for many of the era’s most famous-for-public-policy intellectuals—cons, neocons, and neolibs: James Q. Wilson, Richard John Neuhaus, Irving Kristol, Martin Peretz, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, Peter Berger, Leon Wieseltier, William Bennett, Abbie and Stephan Thernstrom, Robert Solow, Paul Samuelson—a wide circle and a long list.

To other academics, particularly black academics, he appeared less as a protégé or mentor than a lapdog—“a pathetic mascot of the right,” in the words of Martin Kilson, the first African American to become a full professor at Harvard. Views like Loury’s in a position like his could only have been sustained with some combination of courage, stubbornness, and arrogance, and it’s evident from his memoir, even if only between the lines, that Loury had (still has) an abundance of all three. Along with the literary ambition, the quality of Late Admissions that has earned most comment is its candor, which is not only staggering but incontinent.

Loury led a double life. As a boy and a man, he greatly admired those uncles of his. He wanted like them to be a Player, a title he capitalizes so we get the point (we cannot fail to get the point). “Get as much p—y as you can,” one advised him early on, and for the next 40 years he clutched the exhortation, as it were, to his bosom. Though married to a fellow economist, by the time Loury arrived at Harvard he’d already fathered and abandoned a son back in Chicago and established a habit of what his uncles would never have called “extramarital activity.” He was, in his own too-detailed telling, omnivorous. Hookers, students, colleagues, and the wives of colleagues all fell in the crosshairs. He mixed in drugs with the sex, prowling the seedier parts of town for crack and whatever else might combust in the bowl of a glass pipe.

It ended badly, needless to say, and publicly, with a charge from an ex-girlfriend of domestic abuse she later dropped. Somehow his marriage survived, and so, less surprisingly, did his career. He touched bottom and found Jesus, through a local AME church in Boston. (These days he says he’s grown ambivalent about God; no word yet on what God thinks of him.) His political views drifted—he kindly avoids the verb “evolved”—and when he emerged after the scandal from his self-imposed public silence, he was a full-blown man of the left.

Loury proves himself a master of nearly every kind of literary challenge: dialogue, physical description, pacing, characterization, reveling in a love of words. What’s surprising, in the work of an accomplished intellectual, is that the memoir is weakest when it deals with ideas—I mean especially in those passages where Loury tries to account for the shifts in his political ideology. (He is very good at explaining technical matters in his field of economics, however, and you can imagine what a thrilling teacher he must be in the classroom.) A great deal of his intellectual movement seems more a matter of personal disposition—maybe also of personal comfort—than of philosophical case-making.

It stung to be called a mascot of the right: “I began to wonder: Just who had I become?” The lack of imagination among his fellow intellectuals on the right didn’t help: “I came to think that conservatives were willing … to ignore or to demonize black people in desperate circumstances without wanting to be bothered with the messiness of actually trying to solve the problem.”

As a right-winger he had made good money, from corporate consultancies and advisory roles with well-funded advocacy groups. But once he became a left-winger, a flow of professional honors came along with the honorariums. Boston University built an independent think tank around him, funded it, and gave him a fancy house in which to live and hold court. Harvard University Press rushed to publish his speeches and occasional writings. The MacArthur Foundation came calling. Henry Louis Gates asked him to deliver the W.E.B. Dubois Lectures. In prestige and dollar value, the list of plaudits and sinecures far outstrips whatever had once come to him from the right (speaking slots at the Competitive Enterprise Institute? Free reprints of Imprimis?).

There’s no reason to attribute Loury’s changing political tune to cynicism or opportunism. There’s too much motive-mongering going around these days already. He had real, knotty disagreements with many conservatives, and a lot of rightward policy ideas are indeed slipshod and half-baked, if not necessarily grounded in bad faith. By his own, typically candid account, however, he did enjoy the feelings of belonging, of “coming home,” that washed over him along with the money and the status and the subsidized house. By now solidly liberal, he delivered a lecture about the right-wing illusion of “colorblindness” to the American Economic Association. A fellow economist rose from the audience to shout: “Welcome home, Glenn!”

“I didn’t mind hearing that,” he writes. “Not at all.”

Still, for some it wasn’t good enough. In Chicago, he invited one of his surviving uncles to see him speak to a large university audience and attend a catered reception afterward. Uncle Alfred was unimpressed. “Who are you?” he demanded, taking his nephew aside. Alfred thought Glenn had built a career pandering to powerful white people, right or left: “I don’t see anything of us in what you do.”

Loury was hurt and angry: “I could never truly extinguish my desire for his approval. Now that he had withdrawn it, I felt I had lost something I could not replace.” Rather than respond, Loury gives up. “I could never go home again.”

The incident occurs 40 pages before the book’s formal close, but it stands as its summary passage. Loury wasn’t “a solid liberal” after all. In the remaining chapters, he aims to tie up loose ends, attempts small recapitulations, and tries, without real success, to account for yet another conversion. For today Glenn Loury is a conservative again.

The deflating encounter with Uncle Alfred strikes me as the asymptote to which the story has been tending all along, and the point is this: Home, in the sense of deep, unconditional belonging, is no more available to Glenn Loury now than it was on the South Side long ago. It’s not clear that he’s ever wanted it to be. Whether the homelessness is the cost of his moral failings or his restless brilliance or his own kind of integrity—well, readers will differ. Few of them will fail to be moved.

Photo: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy University of Michigan / Flickr

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